Confession is good for the soul - even in Washington, D.C. How do I know? Because many there confess, albeit in the circuitous style of the Beltway.
We all know of cases in which the malefactor just blurts out his guilt years after the crime; that seems to be what's happening, in stages, to O.J. Simpson. But Washingtonians, who excel in the sneaky arts of manipulation, confess in their own Machiavellian manner, with one eye on the camera and the other on the history books.
The very obviousness of such confessions, paper or electronic, forces one to conclude that there's method in this self-incriminating madness. And what might that method be? Perhaps down deep in these politicos' souls, a spark of conscience wants to burn away their sin in the white heat of public exposure. Or perhaps, as a more cynical interpretation, getting caught is a way of getting credit. Credit for being bad, to be sure, but credit nonetheless.
The most notorious example of such self-destroying - and maybe credit-getting - comes from Richard Nixon. In the Watergate tapes, the 37th president freely inculpated himself for all time. On June 23, 1972, less than a week after the Watergate break-in, Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, met to consider a course of action. Both men knew that their every word was being tape-recorded, and yet they co-conspired anyway.
Nixon told Haldeman to use the CIA to persuade the FBI to back away from the investigation: "They should call the FBI in and say that we wish for the country, don't go any further into this case." OK, that sounds like a plan for cover-upping the truth, not for getting it out.
But here's the point: At some level in his mind, Nixon must have known he was destroying himself with those conversations. And yet he kept talking, and he even kept custody of the tapes, which he could have destroyed anytime before the revelation of their existence in July 1973. Which is to say Nixon safeguarded the incriminating "sword" of evidence that would be used against him in impeachment proceedings. In fact, just four days after this "smoking gun" conversation was disclosed, he was forced to resign the presidency.
Some say Nixon was brought down by criminal arrogance. And so he was. But, in addition, maybe he knew what he was doing, as he eyed the prize of historical notoriety - and thus immortality. "The evil that men do lives after them," Shakespeare observed. "The good is oft interred with their bones." Well, Nixon lives.
And Nixon hasn't been the only Washingtonian to immolate himself into immortality. In 1993, Vince Foster, deputy counsel to President Clinton, unburdened his conscience in a note - and then shot himself. Foster has been fodder for conspiracy theorists ever since.
So maybe we should keep these precedents of "Catch me if you can - please!" in mind as we evaluate the uproar over the firings of the U.S. attorneys last year. It seems as if every original statement made by either the Justice Department or the White House has been contradicted - not by reporters or even Democrats, but by the Bush administration's own revealed e-mails. Smoking guns everywhere, leaving tell-tale trails.
Was there no politics in the firings, as the administration asserted? If not, then why did Kyle Sampson, chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, take the trouble to spell out, in an e-mail dated Jan. 9, 2005 - subject line: "Question from Karl Rove" - that those who weren't being fired were "loyal BUSHIES"?
Sampson is now the ex-chief of staff, of course. But at the same time, for one brief shining moment, he was a powerful man. And so if we spell his name right, for the historical record, Sampson, like so many wheeler-dealer Washingtonians before him, will have achieved something.